Ever been so annoyed by a book you’ve wanted to throw it across the room? Maybe it’s a character or a plot development that causes you to lose your rag. For me, it’s usually because the author has dropped one of these creative writing clangers.
Newbie writers and veteran scribes alike fall foul of these mistakes. In fact, it’s because they’re such commonly-made errors that writers continue to make them. Monkey see, monkey do.
You might be shrugging right now. “If everyone does it, what’s the problem?”
Mark my words, with every clanger you make on the page, you’re reducing the effectiveness of your fiction. You’re also less likely to find a publisher for your writing.
Here are five common mistakes you should erase from your fiction today:
“Thanks,” she smiled.
Forget smiling, this dialogue-tag makes me grit my teeth. I think authors flock to it for its brevity. I’ve used dialogue AND indicated that my character’s smiling all in one short sentence!
Just one problem: you can’t smile a sentence, because smiling is not a vocal manoeuvre. You can’t nod a sentence. You can’t wave a sentence. You can’t wince a sentence.
Don’t believe me? Try and smile/nod/wave/wince a sentence right now. I’ll wait.
Phew. I hope you didn’t injure yourself trying to form words from a smile.
Of course, what you can do is smile while speaking:
“Thanks,” she said, smiling.
As a writer, you can also deliver dialogue, then deliver an action.
“Thanks.” She smiled.
This is, at least, technically correct. Personally, I don’t think it’s much of an improvement, though.
Why? Story scenes can easily become littered with smiling. So much smiling! You’d think these grinning idiots did nothing but smile all day long.
“She smiled” is a crutch that your fiction can do without. After all, if a character’s saying thanks, you can assume they’re doing it in a friendly way.
There are also other ways to communicate a character’s good mood. I suggest checking out The Emotion Thesaurus and What Every Body Is Saying for ideas on body language and physiological responses.
Synonyms for said
“She smiled” is my pet peeve. It’s far from the only dialogue-tag clanger, though.
“Sorry,” she apologised.
“Come on,” she coaxed.
“Let’s go!” she exclaimed.
If you’re using synonyms for said in your fiction, I beg of you: PLEASE STOP.
At best, they’re pointless. If someone’s saying sorry, obviously they’re apologising. At worst, they’re deeply, deeply distracting.
Many writers probably steer away from “said” in order to avoid repetitions. You’ve probably learned to avoid using the same words over and over, because someone probably told you it was wrong.
They were right. No “probably” about it.
However, “said” is the exception to that rule. Why? Because it becomes invisible on the page, allowing the reader to know who’s speaking without breaking their flow. By contrast, if you use a jazzy synonym for said, it directs the reader to focus on the dialogue tag, rather than on the dialogue itself.
An adjective/adverb for every word
I think some writers fear their verbs and nouns might get lonely. Why else would they pair every one with an adjective or adverb?
I walked slowly down the winding path, past the fluffy sheep in the lush meadow.
In all seriousness, this type of adjective/adverb-heavy writing comes from a good place. The author is trying hard to evoke the scene, to tell the reader what the path and the sheep and the meadow look like.
Unfortunately, too many adjectives and adverbs implies a lack of confidence and dexterity.
A sprinkling of adjectives is all you ever need. (Adverbs, I’d argue, you can cut altogether.) Focus on picking vibrant verbs and nouns, instead of picking dull verbs/nouns and adorning them with adjectives and adverbs.
Sometimes you can even call a spade a spade. Is this sentence so much less evocative than the one above?
I walked down the path, past the sheep in the meadow.
At work last week, my boss set me an impossible task. Later, I went to him and said, “I tried, but to no avail!”
He started shouting at me. That’s when, unbidden, tears sprang from my eyes.
This didn’t actually happen (my boss is very nice), but if you felt those sentences above read as rather strange, you’re correct.
Tell me the last time you used the words “to no avail” or “unbidden” in everyday conversation.
The answer’s “never”, isn’t it? Right. Because you’re not an 18th century monk.
I can bet this type of archaic language has crept into your stories, though. Until I noticed this clanger, my characters were always trying to no avail, and their tears were forever falling unbidden.
Why? Because we see these phrases again and again in published books. Naturally, we repeat them.
Unless you are a time-travelling monk, I suggest you stop this crazy cycle and remove words like “avail” and “unbidden” from your fiction.
Suddenly and her cousin, momentarily
If you like drama (and who doesn’t?), you’ve probably fallen victim to the siren’s song of “suddenly”.
Suddenly, the door banged open.
Gasp! Who could it be?
I hate to break it to you, but the word “suddenly” is schlocky and suited only to the worst kind of pulp fiction. It’s the equivalent of cutting up a radish using a butcher block knife.
“Suddenly” often comes under the microscope, but another, similar word doesn’t receive the same attention. Yet it’s just as bad.
Momentarily, she startled at the sound of the doorbell.
“Momentarily” is appealing for its sense of drama, but it’s schlocky as hell.
Starting a new paragraph and writing “the door banged open” is just as suspenseful as “suddenly, the door banged open”. The suddenness of it is implied by the short, sharp, surprising sentence.
You can also go through and knife every instance of “momentarily” from your fiction. I guarantee, you will lose nothing.
Ferreting out your mistakes
If you’re looking sidelong at your stories and counting up the number of unbidden and synonyms-for-said that are cluttering up their pages, I get it.
I have made every single one of these mistakes at some point in my writing life. I still find my fiction overburdened with adjectives at first draft stage. But once you learn to ferret out these mistakes, it will give your writing a chance to shine.
What are your writing pet peeves? Let me know in the comments.
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The real problem isn’t so much that an author makes a mistake – as you said, everyone does now and then. The issue is when these mistakes are so distracting that we’re pulled out of the story and reminded we’re reading something made up. That stops us being properly involved and enjoying the book as much as we otherwise might.
The more mistakes we make, the more likely this is to happen. The more we fix, the better the experience for the reader.
Yes, I completely agree, Patsy. Very well articulated.
Useful post, It’s best to learn from other’s mistakes than to feel the urge to commit one by oneself & then think of learning. I think we’ve all made some of these mistakes to some degree or another.